Antidote to Perfectionism

I always say that I am a recovered perfectionist, but just like any other addiction, it’s something I have to continually manage.  For me it turns up as a tight body, a running commentary in my head about doing things “right”, self-condemnation when I don’t measure up to my own high standards, and fear of failing which sometimes paralyzes me from taking action. The tyranny of perfectionism can be traced all the way back to my childhood when I would incessantly study my spelling lists, going from parent to parent to test me on the words despite the fact that I got them right every time.  The fear of not getting the 100% gold star on the top of my paper prevented me from trusting myself.

This straight jacket of control and perfectionism didn’t really start to loosen until I found yoga at age 23.  Ironically I started my yoga journey doing a style of yoga that was quite perfectionistic, precise, measured, and at times harsh.  I see now that this was exactly what I needed because it mirrored where I was at. Over the last 20 years, my practice has softened, become more intuitive and free flowing, and become more of a body exploration rather forcing my body into an ideal form.

The biggest challenge with perfectionism is that despite all the suffering it creates, not to mention it’s correlation to depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, it also has benefits that get reinforced.  For me, my perfectionism helped me get straight A’s, academic success, positive feedback, accolades, external reinforcement.  I now see that all the external pats on the back never really satisfy or fill the hole that perfectionism is trying to cover…the belief that you are not good enough or can never measure up.

The yoga tradition teaches that we actually are good enough, and that we are in fact already whole and perfect.  The Sanksrit word for this is Purna, and it is not something we achieve or work toward, rather it is an inherent quality we possess.  In other words, perfection is a done deal for each of us.   Sally Kempton writes about how in India to celebrate the amazing fact that we are all perfect, they sing a “fullness” mantra at auspicious events.  The translation of this chant goes like this: “That is perfect. This is perfect. From the perfect springs the perfect. If the perfect is taken from the perfect, the perfect remains.”

If perfectionism isn’t something you work toward, but is already present in us, it seems the whole game changes.  Yoga has been my antidote to perfectionism and these are the big lessons that have helped me overcome my chronic conscientiousness.

  • Practice of Non-judgment. Yoga teaches the importance of becoming the neutral witness.  We practice watching our experience and observing the sensations in the body, all from a place of soft detachment.  This isn’t the same as numbing out or dissociating from life, rather it’s feeling everything but not letting any of it hook you.  Every moment is perfect if we aren’t judging it as otherwise.
  • Increased self-love and kindness toward self. Through the simple act of showing up on your yoga mat and observing your breath, body and thoughts, you begin to create rapport and intimacy with yourself.  Yoga isn’t about changing, fixing or improving upon yourself.  It’s a practice of presence, and it’s amazing how much kinder we become toward ourselves after an hour of quality time with ourselves.
  • Being in a yoga community. It’s easy to fall into perfectionism when you feel everyone around you is judging.  Being in the presence of others who are also practicing non-judgment and acceptance is inherently healing. The kindness in the yoga studio prior to and after a class is palpable and always moving to me.  It seems no matter whether a student is new or a regular, just being in a space of practitioners practicing compassion and non-judgment is beneficial.
  • Experiencing a flow state. You may have experienced this when practicing yoga or meditation.  It doesn’t happen to me every time and it isn’t something I can “make happen”, but it honestly is one of the reasons I keep coming back to the practice over and over because I’ve tasted the freedom and fullness that is possible.  It’s the momentary sense that all is well, that abundance is all around, and that my life is unfolding perfectly and not due to any action on my part but through grace.
  • Greater acceptance of the paradox of life. Ram Das, a yogi and great teacher of meditation, has said that life is a beautiful tragedy. My yoga practice has helped me understand this and start to embody it.  Because I practice yoga, I am more awake and feel life more acutely.   I see and feel that there is heart break, endings, illness, loss, betrayal, dark nights and that there is also love, connection, beauty, peace, joy, and light.  There is room for everything and often it is all happening simultaneously.  The practice has taught me that I can hold space for all of it, which helps me release my tight grip of the idea that life could be more perfect.  It’s perfect and I’m perfect, including all the messiness, chaos, unfinished work and loose ends that will never get tied up.

I admit, my perfectionism hasn’t fully dissolved.  Just the other day I almost didn’t sit down to meditate because I didn’t have time for my full 30-minute practice.  Luckily, I now know those old voices of perfectionism and can lovingly smile at them, take their hand, and say “10 minutes is enough”.  You are enough Sweet Betsy, you are enough.